Christina Henry

Jun 162015
 

CHAPTER ONE

If she moved her head all the way up against the wall and tilted it to the left she could just see the edge of the moon through the bars. Just a silver sliver, almost close enough to eat. A sliver of cheese, a sliver of cake, a cup of tea to be polite. Someone had given her a cup of tea once, someone with blue-green eyes and long ears. Funny how she couldn’t remember his face, though. All that part was hazy, her memory of him wrapped in smoke but for the eyes and ears. And the ears were long and furry.

When they found her all she would say was, “The Rabbit. The Rabbit. The Rabbit.” Over and over. When she acted like that they said she was mad. Alice knew she wasn’t mad. Maybe. Not deep down. But the powders they gave her made the world all muzzy and sideways and sometimes she felt mad.

Everything had happened just as she said, when she could say something besides Rabbit. She and Dor went into the old City for Dor’s birthday. 16th birthday. 16 candles on your cake, a sliver of cake and a cup of tea for you, my dear. They both went in, but only Alice came out. Two weeks later came Alice, covered in blood, babbling about tea and a rabbit, wearing a dress that wasn’t hers. Red running down the inside of her legs and blue marks on her thighs were fingers had been.

Her hand went without thought to her left cheek, touched the long thick scar that followed the line of bone from her hairline to the top of her lip. Her face had been flayed open when they found her, and she couldn’t say how or why. It had been open for a long while, the blood oozing from it gone black and brackish, the skin around it tattered at the edges. The doctors told her parents they had done their best, but she would never be beautiful again.

Her sister said it was her own fault. If she had stayed out of the Old City as she was supposed to this never would have happened. There was a reason why they lived in the New City, the ring of shiny new buildings that kept the Old City at bay. The Old City wasn’t for people like them. It was for the filth you throw away. All children were warned about the dangers of straying to the Old City. Alice didn’t belong there.

The hospital where Alice had lived for the last ten years was in the Old City, so her sister was wrong. Alice did belong there.

Sometimes her parents came to visit, doing their duty; their noses wrinkled like she was something that smelled bad, even though the attendants always dragged her out and gave her a bath first. She hated the baths. They were icy cold and rough with scrubbing, and she was never permitted to clean herself. If she struggled or cried out they would hit her with the bath brush or pinch hard enough to leave a mark, always somewhere that couldn’t be seen, the side of her breast or the soft part of her belly, with a promise of ‘more where that came from’ unless she behaved.

Her parents didn’t visit so much anymore. Alice couldn’t really remember the last time, but she knew it was a long time. The days all ran together in her room, no books to read, no things to do. Hatcher said she should exercise so she would be fit when she got out, but somewhere in her heart Alice knew she would never get out. She was a broken thing, and the New City did not like broken things. They liked the new and the whole. Alice hardly recalled when she was new and whole. That girl seemed like someone else she’d known once, long ago and far away.

“Alice?” A voice through the mouse-hole.

Many years before a mouse had gotten into the wall and chewed through the batting between her cell and Hatcher’s. She didn’t know what had happened to the mouse. Probably caught in a trap in the kitchens, or went out on the river side and drowned. But the mouse had led her to Hatcher, a rough voice coming through the wall. She had really thought she’d gone round the bend at first, hearing voices coming from nowhere.

“Hey you,” the voice had said.

She’d looked around wildly, afraid, and scuttled into a corner on the far side of the window, opposite the door.

“Hey, you. Down here,” the voice said.

She resolutely put her fingers in her ears. Everyone knew hearing voices was a sign of madness, and she’d promised to herself she would not be mad no matter what they said, no matter how she felt. After several moments of happy silence she released her fingers and looked around the room in relief.

A great sigh exhaled from the walls. “The mouse hole, you nit.”

Alice stared in alarm at the small opening in the corner opposite. Somehow a talking mouse was worse than voices in her head. If mice were talking then there really were men with blue-green eyes and long furry ears. And while she didn’t remember his face she did remember she’d been afraid. She stared at the mouse hole like something horrible might suddenly emerge from it, like the Rabbit might unfold himself from that space and finish whatever he had started.

Another sign, this one shorter and much more impatient. “You’re not hearing bloody voices and a mouse is not speaking to you. I’m in the room next to yours and I can see you through the hole. You’re not crazy and there’s no magic, so will you please come here and speak with me before I go madder than I already have?”

“If you’re not in my head and you’re not magic, then how do you know what I’m thinking?” Alice asked, her voice suspicious. She was beginning to wonder if this wasn’t some trick of the doctors, some way to draw her into a trap.

The attendants gave her a powder with her breakfast and dinner, to “keep her calm”, they said. But she knew that those powders still allowed her some freedom to be Alice, to think and dream and try to remember the lost bits of her life. When they took her out of her room for a bath or a visit she sometimes saw other patients, people standing still with dead eyes and drool on their chins, people who were alive and didn’t know it. Those people were “difficult to deal with”. They got injections instead of powders. Alice didn’t want injections, so she wasn’t going to say or do anything that would alarm the doctors. Doctors who might be trying to trick her with voices in the wall.

“I know what you’re thinking, because that’s what I’d be thinking if I were you,” the voice said. “We’re in the loony bin, aren’t we? Now come over and have a look through the hole and you’ll see.”

She stood cautiously; still unsure it was not a trick, whether of her mind or the doctors. She crossed under the window and crouched by the mouse hole.

“All I can see are your knees,” the voice complained. “Come all the way down, won’t you?”

Alice lowered to her stomach, keeping her head well away from the opening. She had a vague fear that a needle might flash through the hole and plunge into her eye.

Once her cheek was on the ground she could see through the small, tight opening. On the other side was an iron gray eye and part of a nose. There was a bulge just where the rest of the nose disappeared from view, like it might have been broken once. It didn’t look like any doctor she knew, but Alice wasn’t taking any chances. “Let me see your whole face,” she said.

“Good,” the gray eye said. “You’re thinking. That’s good. Not just a pretty face, then.”

Alice’s hand moved automatically to cover her scar, then she remembered she was lying on that side of her face and he couldn’t really see it anyway. Let him think she was pretty if he wanted. It would be nice to be pretty to someone even with her fair hair all snarled and nothing to wear but a woolen shift. She heard the swish-swish of wool on batting as the gray eye moved away from the hole and became two gray eyes, a long broken nose and a bushy black beard with flecks of white in it.

“All right, then?” the voice asked. “I’m Hatcher.”

And that was how they met. Hatcher was ten years older than Alice, and nobody ever came to see him.

“Why are you here?” she asked one day, long after they were friends, or at least friends who never really saw one another.

“I killed a lot of people with an axe,” he said. “That’s how I got my name. Hatcher.”

“What was your name before?” Alice asked. She was surprisingly undisturbed by the knowledge that her new friend was an axe-murderer. It seemed unrelated to who he was now, the rough voice and gray eyes through the hole in the wall.

“I don’t remember,” he said. “I don’t remember anything from before, really. They found me with a bloodied axe in my hand and five people dead around me all slashed to pieces. I tried to do the same for the police when they came for me, so I must have killed those people.”

“Why did you do it?”

“Don’t remember,” he said, and his voice change a little, became hard. “It’s like there’s this haze over my eyes, black smoke filling everything up. I remember the weight of the axe in my hand, and the hot blood on my face, in my mouth. I remember the sound of the blade in soft flesh.”

“I remember that too,” Alice said, although she didn’t know why she said that. For a moment it had been true, though. She could hear the sound of a knife piercing skin, that sliding slicing noise, and someone screaming.

“Did you kill a lot of people too?” Hatcher asked.

“I don’t know,” Alice said. “I might have.”

“It’s all right if you did,” Hatcher said. “I would understand.”

“I really don’t know,” Alice said. “I remember before and I remember after, but that fortnight is gone, save for a few flashes.”

“The man with the long

“Yes,” Alice said. The man who hunted her, faceless, through her nightmares.

“When we get out we’ll find him, and then you’ll know what happened to you,” Hatcher said.

That had been eight years before, and they were both still there, rooms side-by-side in a hospital that had no intention of ever letting them go.

“Alice?” Hatcher said again. “I can’t sleep.”

She blinked away the memory, brought on by the moon and the sound of his voice.

“I can’t sleep either, Hatch,” she said, crawling along the floor to the mouse-hole. It was much darker down here. There was no light in their rooms save that of the silver moon through the bars, and the occasional passage of a lamp by the attendant walking the halls. She could not see the color of his eyes, only the wet gleam of them.

“The Jabberwock’s awake, Alice,” Hatcher said.

It was then she noticed his voice was thin and reedy. Hatcher wasn’t often afraid. Mostly he seemed strong, almost relentlessly so. All day long she heard him in his room, grunting with effort as she went through his exercises. When the attendants came to take Hatcher to his bath there was always a lot of noise, punching and kicking and yelling. More than once Alice heard the crunch of bone, the angry curse of an attendant.

She asked once how come he didn’t get injections like all the other troublemakers. He’d grinned, his gray eyes crinkling at the corners, and said the injection had made him wild, wilder than before, so after that they left him alone. He didn’t even get powders in his food.

Hatcher was never scared, except when he talked about the Jabberwock.

“There’s no Jabberwock, Hatch,” Alice said, her voice low and soothing. She heard tales of the monster before. Not often, although lately it seemed to be on his mind more.

“I know you don’t believe in him. But he’s here, Alice. They keep him downstairs, in the basement. And when he’s awake I can feel him,” Hatcher said.

There was a pleading note under the fear, and Alice relented. After all, she believed in a man with rabbit-ears, and Hatcher accepted that without question.

“What can you feel?” she asked.

“I feel the night crawling up all around, blotting out the moon. I feel blood running down the walls, rivers of it in the streets below. And I feel his teeth closing around me. That’s what he’ll do, Alice, if he’s ever set free. He’s been imprisoned here a long time, longer than you or me.”

“How could anyone trap such a beast?” Alice wondered.

Hatcher shifted restlessly on the floor. She could hear him moving around. “I don’t know for sure,” he said, and his voice was quieter now, so that she had to strain to hear him. “I think a Magician must have done it.”

“A Magician?” Alice asked. This was more farfetched that anything Hatcher had said before. “All the Magicians are gone. They were driven out or killed centuries ago, during the purge. This place is not that old. How could a Magician have capture the Jabberwock and imprisoned it here?”

“Only a Magician would have the skill,” Hatcher insisted. “No ordinary man would survive the encounter.”

Alice was willing to indulge his fantasy of a monster in the basement, but she couldn’t countenance this myth about a magician. It didn’t seem wise to argue, though. Hatcher took no powders and had no injections, and sometimes he could get agitated. If he got agitated he might howl for hours, or beat his hands against the wall until they were bloody despite the padding.

So she said nothing, only listened to his shallow breath, and the cried of the other inmates echoing through the building.

“I wish I could hold your hand,” Hatcher said. “I’ve never seen you all together, you know. Just bits through the hole. I try to put all the bits together in my head so I can see all of you, but it doesn’t look quite right.”

“In my head you’re just gray eyes and a beard,” Alice said.

Hatcher laughed softly, but there was no mirth in it. “Like the Rabbit, just eyes and fur. What would have happened if we met on the street, Alice? Would we have said hello?”

She hesitated for a moment. She didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but neither did she want to lie. Her parents lied. They said things like, “You’re looking well” and “We’re sure you’ll be home soon,” things Alice knew were not true.

“Alice?” Hatcher asked again, and brought her back to him.

“I don’t know if we would have seen each other to say hello,” she said carefully. “I lived in the New City and, I think…you seem like you were from the Old City.”

“Well, la-dee-dah,” Hatcher said, and his voice was hard. “Fancy girl wouldn’t soil her dainty hem in the Old City. Except you did. You got good and soiled. And now you’re here, just like me.”

His words were like knotted fists to her gut, and all the breath seemed to leave her for a moment. But they were true words, and she would not pretend otherwise. The truth was all she had left. The truth, and Hatcher.

“Yes,” she said. “We are both here.”

There was a long silence between them. Alice waited in the darkness, the moonlight shifting on the floor. Hatcher seemed to be walking the knife’s edge tonight, and she would not be the one to knock him off.

“I am sorry, Alice,” he said finally, and he sounded more like the Hatch she knew.

“Don’t,” she started, but he cut her off.

“I should not say such things,” he said. “You’re my only light, Alice. Without you I would have succumbed to this place long ago. But the Jabberwock is awake, and he makes me think of things I should not.”

“The sound of a blade in flesh,” she said, echoing the memory of his words.

“And warm blood on my hands,” Hatcher said, “I feel most like myself when I think those thoughts. As if that is who I really am.”

“At least you have some idea,” Alice said. “I never had the chance to find out. I lost my way first.”

She heard him shifting again on the floor.

“I feel like I’ve got bugs inside my skin,” he said. “Sing me a song.”

“I don’t know any songs,” she said, surprised by this request.

“Yes, you do,” he said. “You sing it all day long, and when you’re not singing it you’re humming. Something about a butterfly.”

“A butterfly?” she asked, but as soon as she said this it came back to her, and she heard her mother’s voice in head. This sound was so painful, piercing her heart, this remembrance of love that was lost to her forever. She began to sing aloud, to cover the memory with her own voice.

“Sleep little butterfly

Sleep little butterfly

Now the day has gone

Sleep little butterfly

Sleep little butterfly

Soon the morning will come

Close your eyes and let the night go ‘round you

He’ll keep you safe and warm

Sleep little butterfly

Sleep little butterfly

Soon the morning will come.”

Her voice trailed off, her throat full of love and loss and pain. Hatcher said nothing, but she heard his breath go deep and even, and she let her eyes fall shut. She matched her breath to his, and it was almost like holding his hand as the night closed in.

Alice dreamed of blood. Blood on her hands and under her feet, blood in her mouth and pouring from her eyes. The room was filled with it. Outside the door Hatcher stood hand in hand with something dark and hideous, a thing crafted of shadow with flashing silver teeth.

“Don’t take him from me,” she said, or tried to say, but she could not speak through the blood in her mouth, choking her. Her eyes were covered with smoke then, and she couldn’t see Hatch or the monster anymore. Heat enfolded her body, and then there was nothing but fire.

Fire. Fire.

“Alice, wake up! The hospital is on fire.”

Alice opened her eyes. Hatcher’s gray one was pressed to the mouse-hole, and it was wild with fear and anticipation.

“At last!” he said. “Stay low, away from the smoke, and get near the door but not in front of it.”

Alice blinked as he disappeared. The dream still clung to her brain, and her mouth was dry. Her shift clung to her body, and her face was wet with sweat. The odor of smoke finally permeated her nostrils and her fuzzy head, and there was another smell, too – like cooking meat. She didn’t want to think what that might be.

Alice turned so she was flat on her back, and saw a thick blanket of smoke just a few inches from her face. The heat beneath made the floor an agony to lie upon, but there was no way to escape it.

The sounds filtered in then. The crack of flame, of heavy objects crashing to the ground. Horrible, horrible screams. And close by, the repeated grunts and pounding of someone slamming his body into the wall. Hatch was trying to break the door down in his room.

The noise was terrible. Alice did not think it was possible. The walls might be soft, but the doors were iron. He would kill himself.

“Hatcher, no!” she cried, but he could not hear her.

There was a sound of something crunching, but Hatcher did not cry out, and then there was no more noise.

“Hatcher,” she said, and her voice was soft and sad. Two tears leaked from the corner of each eye. There was no point in getting up then, if Hatcher was gone. The smoke and the noise told Alice that the fire was well underway. The attendants and the doctors would not bother to free the patients, especially when most families would be thrilled to be free of the burden of their mad relatives. So they would all burn.

Alice found she was not as distressed about this as she ought to be. Perhaps it was the powder in last night’s dinner, or the smoke that filled her lungs in place of air. She felt very calm. She would just lie there and wait until the fire came.

Her eyes closed again, and she drifted away, away to a place she had never been in real life, a silver lake tucked in a green valley, wildflowers dotting the shore. There was no smell of medicine there, or harsh burning soap. There was no smoke and no pain, no heartache and no blood. It was the place she always went, the place where her mind hid when the doctors asked questions she did not want to answer, or her parents sighed in disappointment.

Something grabbed her around the shoulders, and her eyes flew open in shock. It had been years since anyone touched her except to drag her to the bath. Hatcher’s face was close to hers, twisted in anger, and blood ran from a cut on the side of his head.

“I told you to get near the door, you silly nit,” he said, dragging her up to sitting and then immediately pushing her down to her belly.

“Follow me,” he said, crawling toward the door.

The open door.

She followed automatically, keeping his filthy bare heels in sight. She wanted to ask how he had gotten out, how he wasn’t battered and dead. But he was moving along with surprising quickness into the hall. He paused after a few moments so she could catch up to him. There was no one except the two of them, and the frantic pounding of other patients still trapped in their boxes.

It was then she noticed his right arm hung at an odd angle and he was using only his left to pull his body along. “Hatch, what happened?” she asked. She was out of breath from just that short period of exertion.

“It came out when I broke the door frame,” he said. “I’ll fix it later. We have to go. The floor is getting hotter, and he’s almost out.”

“Who?” Alice asked.

He started along again. “The Jabberwock.”

“Hatch,” she said, trying to keep up with him. Her lungs and throat were burning. “We’re going the wrong way. The stairs are behind us.”

“The stairs are on fire,” Hatch said. “I’ve already checked. We’ve got to go out this way.”

“But, Hatch,” Alice said, shaking her head from side to side to clear it. The smoke was getting to her. “We’re on the third floor.”

“We’ll go out the back to the river. Just keep up, Alice.”

“The river?” she said, and a faint alarm sounded in her head. There was something about the river, but she couldn’t recall exactly what it was.

Just then they passed the door of a patient who was repeatedly throwing himself against the iron and screaming. The cloud of smoke above them blocked the small viewing window, so Alice was fairly certain the man could not see them escaping. She felt a tinge of guilt all the same as they went by.

“What about the others?” Alice asked. “Shouldn’t we let them out?”

“There is no time,” Hatcher said. “And they would only be millstones in any case. They’ve no sense. We’d have to lead them from here like children. And then what? Would we take them with us? No, Alice, it’s best to leave them as they are. We must get away before he’s free.”

It was a cold thing he said, but true. Not the bit about the Jabberwock getting free, but the other part. They would not be able to safely lead them to freedom without endangering their own lives.

Hatcher reached the end of the hallway before Alice did. He came to his knees, and she noticed he held a small ring of keys in his left hand.

“Where did you get those?” she asked.

“From the attendant at the top of the stairs. How do you think I opened your door?” he asked as he methodically fitted first one key, then another, then another.

“There was nobody in the corridor when we came out,” she said.

“I took his keys and threw him down the stairs. That’s how I knew the steps were on fire,” he said.

The fifth key clicked, and Hatcher pushed the door open, waving her inside the room.

A cloud of smoke followed them in before Hatcher was able to close the door behind them, but it dissipated quickly as the far window was open. The heavy seething air of the city, hardly fresh, poured into the room. Still, it had been years since Alice had smelled anything but the rank asylum – unwashed bodies, laudanum, chloroform, vomit and blood and burning soap over it all. By contrast the soot and refuse outside seemed like a burst of clean country breeze.

Suddenly a head appeared in the window from outside. It was one of the attendants, a ginger-haired man with only half a nose. His eyes widened when he saw Hatcher and Alice in the room, and he started to climb back inside.

Before the man could get any farther than throwing one leg over the sill Hatcher was upon him. He punched the man in the face hard with his left hand, twice, three times. Then he kicked the man in the side so hard Alice heard ribs break. Finally he pushed the now unconscious attendant out the window, looking out after the falling man to follow his progress to the river below.

He nodded in satisfaction before turning back to Alice. “I was the one who bit half his nose off. He was coming back to make sure we couldn’t get out, do you see? He would never have let us leave.”

CHAPTER TWO

 

Alice nodded. She did see. The smoke must have gone up in her brain because everything seemed soft at the edges.

“There’s a ledge out here,” Hatcher said.

He went to the wall next to the window, grabbed his right wrist with his left hand, pushed his hanging right arm against the wall, and did some kind of maneuver while Alice watched. When he turned back to her his right arm appeared normal again. He flexed his fingers as if to ensure they were still functional. Throughout all of this he never made a sound, not even a hint that the process was painful, though Alice was certain it must have been. He held his hand out so she could join him by the window.

She approached him, and gasped in shock when his hand closed around hers. It seemed like an electric current ran from their joined hands up into her heart, which hammered in her chest. His gray eyes sparked, and he squeezed her hand tighter for a moment. When you are in an asylum no one ever touches you in kindness, and Alice knew the shock was as great for him.

He said nothing as he released her. He climbed through the window on to the ledge, and Alice followed him, because that was what she was supposed to do.

She swung her left leg over the sill. Her shift rode up, exposing her skin to the morning chill, and she shivered. She supposed it wasn’t so terribly cold out, but after the furnace of the burning hospital the outdoors seemed frigid.

Alice ducked her head under the sash and saw the ledge Hatcher wanted her to reach. Below it, too far below for comfort, was the river, gray and putrid. Now that she saw it she remembered what she had forgotten before.

Hatcher moved on the ledge behind her, and his hands were at her waist, guiding her out until they stood side by side, their backs pasted against the brick exterior of the hospital. The ledge was barely wide enough to admit the length of Alice’s feet. Hatcher’s toes curled around the edge as if that grip could save him from falling.

His expression was fierce and exultant. “We’re outside, Alice. We’re out.

“Yes,” she said, and her thrill at this prospect was much tempered by the sight of the river. Now that she was away from the smoke her mind was clearer, and this plan seemed more risky than trying to climb down a set of burning stairs. The stench of the water reached her then, and she gagged.

Hatcher grabbed her hand to keep her from stumbling forward into the empty air. “We jump into the river,” he said, “and swim across to the opposite bank. We can disappear into the Old City after that. No one will look for us in there. They will think we’re dead.”

“Yes,” she agreed again. “But we’re not supposed to go into the river. It will kill us. All the factories dump their waste there. I remember Father speaking of it. He said it was an outrage.”

“Neither can we stay here,” Hatcher said. “If the fire does not consume us then they will catch is in their nets and put us back in our cages. I cannot go back, Alice. I cannot spend the remainder of my life as a moth beating its wings against a jar. I would rather perish in the mouth of the Jabberwock than that.”

Alice saw the truth of this, and felt it in her heart as well. She did not want to go back inside the box they had made for her. But the river was so far below, churning with poison. What if their skin was seared from their bodies? What if they swallowed the river water and died writhing on the shore as the foul substance coursed in their blood?

As these thoughts occurred a burst of flame caused a nearby window to explode outward, startling a huddle of soot-coated pigeons that had taken foolish refuge on the same ledge Alice and Hatcher perched on. The birds took flight, squawking in protest, and Alice looked at Hatcher, knowing he saw the fear in her eyes.

“Now we must fly,” he said. “Trust me.”

She did. She always had, though she didn’t know why. He squeezed her hand, and the next thing Alice knew she was falling, falling away into a rabbit’s hole.

“Don’t let go,” Hatcher shouted just before they hit the water.

His grip on her fingers tightened painfully, and she cried out, but he didn’t let go. Which was a very good thing, because as soon as the horrible muck coated her head she reflexively loosed her hold, and if Hatcher hadn’t been holding her that way, she would have drowned.

He yanked her, coughing and gagging, to the surface, scooped an arm under her ribs and began paddling toward the shore. “Kick your feet.”

She fluttered her ankles weakly in the water. It felt thick and strange, with none of the fluid slipperiness water was supposed to possess. It moved sluggishly, the current hardly enough to push them a few inches off course. A noxious vapor rose from the surface, making her eyes and nose burn.

Because of the way Hatcher held her she couldn’t see his face or the opposite shore that the approached. His breath was smooth and even, like he was unaffected by the miasma floating above the surface of the river. He pulled them both along with smooth, sure strokes as Alice floundered in the water, trying not to cause them both to go under.

She saw the asylum burning behind them, as tongues of flame emerged from newly opened windows. The distance and roar of the fire drowned out the sound of the inmates screaming. There were people running around the sides of the building, trying to stop the spread to the adjacent structures. She had never given much thought to the places around the hospital before.

On one side was a long, low building crouched against the bank of the river like a squat turtle. That must have been on the side that Alice’s room had been, else she wouldn’t have been able to see the moon. The edifice on the opposite side was huge, much bigger than the hospital, and the smoke belching from its chimneys seemed as thick and dangerous as that pouring from her former home.

“Put your feet down,” Hatcher said suddenly, and Alice realized he was walking now, not swimming.

Her toes sank into the muck, and the water was still up to her neck, but they were nearly there. A small knot of people were gathered a little ways down the bank on a jetty, pointing and exclaiming over the collapsing asylum.

“I see them,” Hatcher said in a low voice. “Over here.”

He guided her toward a place where the shadows lay thick despite the rising sun, away from the flickering exposure of the gas lamps set at intervals to alleviate the fog from the river and the factories. Alice fell to her hands and knees just out of the water, taking great gasps of air. Even a few feet from the river the air was noticeably cleaner, though hardly what one would call clean, she thought.

Everywhere was the stench of the water, the reek of smoke and flame, the chemical burn of factory exhaust. Underneath it all was the smell of the morning’s cooking coming from the warren of flats just before them.

Hatcher had done much more than Alice to get them out of the burning hospital and through the disgusting river, yet he had not collapsed like she had when they emerged from the water. He stood beside her, still and calm. Alice rolled to her seat and looked up at him. He stared, transfixed, at the fiery structure across the water. He stood so still that she began to worry, and she struggled to her feet.

“Hatcher?” she asked, and touched his arm.

His hair and clothes were steaming now that they were on shore, and he was coated in the filth they had just crossed. His gray eyes glowed in the reflection of the fire, like the coals of hell, and when he turned those eyes on her she felt, for the first time, a little afraid of him. This was not Hatch, her constant companion through the mouse-hole. Nor was this the man who had methodically rescued her from a burning building. This was Hatcher, the murderer with the axe, the man who had been found covered in blood and surrounded by bodies.

But he would never hurt you, Alice told herself. He’s still Hatch, somewhere in there. He’s just lost himself for a moment.

She put her hands on his shoulders, tentatively, and said his name again, for he stared at her but did not seem to see. Then his hands were at her wrists, his grip bruising the thin skin, and his iron eyes were wild.

“He’s out, he’s out, he’s out,” he chanted. “Now the world will break and burn and bleed, everyone will bleed.”

“The Jabberwock?” Alice said.

“His mouth will open wide and we will all fall in, fall in and be devoured,” Hatcher said. “We must get away, away before he finds me. He knows I can hear him. He knows that I know what evil he will do.”

Suddenly there was a tremendous noise from the asylum, a sound like the very heart of the building crashing in on itself. Alice and Hatcher turned to watch, and all the walls collapsed like a melting sandcastle. There seemed to be nothing but fire now, and the fire shot impossibly upward into the sky, well past the point where there was anything to burn. It filled the horizon, the wings of a monster outstretched.

Behind the flame was a darkness, a gigantic shadow that spread, as if something that was trapped was now free, reaching its arms toward the sun.

“Is that…him?” Alice asked. She’d never believed in the Jabberwock, not really. And perhaps there was no shadow at all. She was exhausted, and had spent some time breathing smoke and poison. Her brain might tell her there was a shadow when in fact there was none. That was the trouble with not being right in the head. You couldn’t always tell if your eyes were telling the truth.

Hatcher did not reply to her question. He stared for a moment at the tower of flame, and then grabbed Alice’s right wrist, tugging her up the bank. The mud inhibited fast progress, but they finally managed to clamber on to the narrow cobbled path that ran around and between the warrens of tilting structures stacked crazily against one another.

The Old City seemed to have no beginning and no end, a circling maze of stairways and narrow alleys connecting buildings that had been patched and rebuilt on top of crumbling ruins for centuries. There was nothing gleaming and new there, not even the children, who seemed to be birthed with haunted eyes.

Hatcher ducked into the nearest alley, pulling Alice after him. The rough stones scraped her bare feet, but she understood the need to disappear quickly. Aside from the question of the Jabberwock, Alice had recognized the distinctive brass-buttoned gleam of a copper’s uniform. Never mind if the asylum was naught but a cinder now. If they were caught out in their hospital whites the police would drag them away. And Alice had a feeling Hatcher would not go quietly.

So they dipped and darted beneath the girls with their customers pressed up against the alley walls, or old men gathered in clusters around a shell game or a cockfight. Hatcher led them deeper into the Old City, to a place where the rising sun was blocked by the closeness of the buildings and the air was blanketed in fog from the factories. Mist rose from the cobblestones, hiding approaching figures until they were nearly upon you.

Which is how the men surrounded them.

Hatcher paused for a moment, seeing Alice out of breath and suffering. He did not pat or comfort her, but waited. In that moment that they were still an enormous ogre loomed out of the darkness and swung a club at Hatcher. Alice opened her mouth to scream, but a filthy hand covered it and another hand latched on her breast, squeezing it so hard tears sprang to her eyes.

“What have we here?” a rough voice cooed in her ear. “A little lost lamb?”

She kicked out, tried to slip out of his clutch as Hatcher and the ogre- whom she now saw was a man, the largest man she had ever seen – disappeared into the fog. Her struggles were useless against her captor’s strength as he dragged her away.

His free hand moved from her breast to the hem of shift, pulling it to her waist, his fingers on her thighs, and she went wild then, biting down on the hand that covered her mouth because she remembered, remembered a man over her in the flickering light, pushing between her legs and it hurt, she screamed because it hurt, but he kept at it until she bled.

The man who held her now swore as he felt her teeth but he did not let go. “Little hellion,” he snarled, and slammed her forehead against the brick wall.

She went limp and dazed then for a moment, and something wet and sticky covered her eyes. Then she was on the ground on her belly, her bare thighs scraping against the stones, and his hands were on her bottom, pulling her legs apart.

Just go away, she thought. You’re not here, you’re in a green field in a valley, and the sun is shining down, and here comes someone smiling at you, someone who loves you.

Then the hands on her were gone and she heard the sound of flesh meeting flesh. She rolled to one side, her shift still up around her waist, and wiped the stickiness from her eyes.

Hatcher was pounding her attacker repeatedly with his fists. He had pushed the man’s back against the wall and was methodically reducing the man’s face to an unrecognizable blob of jelly. After several moments Hatcher released the man, who fell limp to the ground. He did not appear to be breathing.

Hatcher turned to Alice, his chest heaving. He was covered in blood, his hands and his chest and his face. His eyes went from the cut on her head to her bare waist, and lingered there for a moment. Then he said, “Cover yourself” and turned away to search the man’s pockets.

Alice pulled the shift down to her knees again and used the wall to help her stand. She leaned there for a moment and her body began to shake all over. When Hatcher turned back her teeth were chattering. He held a small pouch in one hand.

“Full of gold,” he said, nudging the limp body with his toe. “Probably a slave trader. He would have used you and then sold you.”

“I th-th-think I w-w-was sold before,” she said. She had a memory of money changing hands, of seeing a smaller hand being filled with gold from a larger one.

“By the man with the long ears, or to him?” Hatcher asked.

She shook her head. There had only been that flash of terror, of memory best forgotten. There had been a man, but she couldn’t remember his face. Then her mind reasserted itself, keeping her safe.

He paused in front of her, a savage splattered with the blood of her attacker, and there was something about his face that was oddly vulnerable.

“May I…?”he asked, and he mimed putting his arm around her shoulder.

Everything inside her clenched and cried no. Then the moment passed, and she remembered how he had stared at her bare legs but turned away instead of falling on her like a ravening wolf. She nodded, and saw relief on his face.

His arm went around and pulled her tight to his body for a moment, so she could feel the coiled strength in him. Then he loosened enough so she could walk, but did not let go. They returned to the place where the ogre had attacked. Alice saw the body of the larger man there. He still breathed shallowly through the broken mess where his teeth used to be. Near by on the ground was the club he had used on Hatcher. It was actually just a thick rod of wood with a slightly oversized end. It was broken in two pieces.

“We must get inside somewhere,” Hatcher said.

“Where can we go that’s safe?” Alice asked. “Does this place seem familiar to you?”

“It does,” he admitted. “Though I don’t know why. From the moment we stepped inside the Old City my feet have been leading us someplace.”

“Someplace safe?” she asked. The cold was in her bones now, making her tremble all over despite the warmth of Hatcher holding her close. She was hungry and tired and more scared than she could ever remember being. For a brief moment she longed for the certainty of the hospital, the security of four walls around her.

“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s been many years since I’ve been here. Some places look the same. More the same than you’d think. And others seem much different, though I can’t put my finger on why.”

“I don’t think your memory is as gone as you think it is,” Alice said. “You remember things like the time of Magicians. And that men like that sell girls like me. And you know the city. You’ve only forgotten who you are.”

“No,” Hatcher said. “I know who I am now. I’ve forgotten who I was before. Probably for the best. You might not like who I was then. I might not, either.”

Alice remembered who she was before. She just couldn’t recall what happened to that girl to make her this girl. And given the flashes she’d just seen that was probably for the best. Hatcher was right. Maybe not remembering was better.

She shook under his arm. He rubbed his shoulder with his hand, fruitlessly trying to impart heat.

“I can’t get warm,” she said.

“We’re nearly there.”

“Nearly where?”

“I don’t know. It’s where my feet are leading us. It’s someplace safe.”

Alice noticed they’d emerged from the maze of alleys into a thoroughfare. It wasn’t packed, but there were plenty of people going about their morning’s business. Women with their heads wrapped in scarves against the chill, carrying baskets of eggs and cabbage and fish wrapped in paper. Men leading donkeys laden with coal or firewood, or making quiet trades on the sly. Boys in ragged caps and bare feet pinching apples from carts when the proprietor wasn’t looking.

Everyone who saw Alice and Hatcher averted their eyes and veered away, but the two of them did not seem to cause sufficient alarm that the police were called, for which Alice was grateful. None of these folk would want the authorities sniffing around, for she was certain that more than fruit and coal was being sold off those carts. Every person made it clear that no help was to be found there, but no hindrance, either.

“When we arrive,” Hatcher said. “There will be an old woman, and she will know me, and she will let us in.”

Alice wondered who this old woman was, and why Hatcher was so sure she would help. She wanted to ask, but Hatcher probably would not know the answer, anyway. And her stomach was starting to churn, even though there was nothing in it. If they’d still been in their rooms the morning porridge would have come hours ago. Alice coughed, and tasted something foul in the back of her throat.

“I feel sick,” she moaned.

“Nearly there,” Hatcher said, steering her around the corner of a storefront selling healing potions and down another alley.

“I won’t make it,” Alice said, and broken away from Hatcher to heave against the wall.

Her stomach wrenched upward, her throat burning but all that came out were a few thin drools of bile. Alice leaned her aching forehead against the cool brick and winced when the rough surface scraped against the scabbed knot given her by the man who would have raped her. The nausea had not passed. Instead the outburst had only made her feel worse.

“Just a little farther,” Hatcher said, tugging at her hand, her shoulder. “It’s the powder making you sick.”

“I haven’t had my powder today,” Alice said.

“Precisely,” Hatcher said. “How many years have you had a powder with breakfast and supper?”

“Ever since I went to hospital,” Alice said.

It was a terrible struggle to put one foot in front of the other. She could barely lift her leg from the ground. Her toes curled under and scraped along the stone, the skin there peeling away and leaving it raw.

Hatcher badgered and dragged her the last few feet. When finally they reached the plain wooden door tucked in a notch halfway down the alley Alice was on the verge of collapse.

Hatcher pounded on the door with his fist, his other arm keeping Alice from folding up in a heap on the ground. The door opened and a very small woman, knotted and ancient, appeared in the opening. She wore a blue dress covered by a faded red shawl. Her hair was white, and her eyes were as gray as Hatcher’s. She took one long look at him, and Alice thought she heard a little sigh.

Then the woman said, “Nicholas. I’ve been waiting for you for three days.”

 

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Apr 162015
 

If she moved her head all the way up against the wall and tilted it to the left she could just see the edge of the moon through the bars. Just a silver sliver, almost close enough to eat. A sliver of cheese, a sliver of cake, a cup of tea to be polite. Someone had given her a cup of tea once, someone with blue-green eyes and long ears. Funny how she couldn’t remember his face, though. All that part was hazy, her memory of him wrapped in smoke but for the eyes and ears. And the ears were long and furry.

When they found her all she would say was, “The Rabbit. The Rabbit. The Rabbit.” Over and over. When she acted like that they said she was mad. Alice knew she wasn’t mad. Maybe. Not deep down. But the powders they gave her made the world all muzzy and sideways and sometimes she felt mad.

Everything had happened just as she said, when she could say something besides “Rabbit.” She and Dor went into the Old City for Dor’s birthday. Sixteenth birthday. Sixteen candles on your cake, a sliver of cake and a cup of tea for you, my dear. They both went in, but only Alice came out. Two weeks later came Alice, covered in blood, babbling about tea and a rabbit, wearing a dress that wasn’t hers. Red running down the insides of her legs and blue marks on her thighs were fingers had been.

Her hand went without thought to her left cheek, touched the long thick scar that followed the line of bone from her hairline to the top of her lip. Her face had been flayed open when they found her, and she couldn’t say how or why. It had been open for a long while, the blood oozing from it gone black and brackish, the skin around it tattered at the edges. The doctors told her parents they had done their best, but she would never be beautiful again.

Her sister said it was her own fault. If she had stayed out of the Old City as she was supposed to, this never would have happened. There was a reason why they lived in the New City, the ring of shiny new buildings that kept the Old City at bay. The Old City wasn’t for people like them. It was for the filth you threw away. All children were warned about the dangers of straying to the Old City. Alice didn’t belong there.

The hospital where Alice had lived for the last ten years was in the Old City, so her sister was wrong. Alice did belong there.

Sometimes her parents came to visit, doing their duty; their noses wrinkled like she was something that smelled bad, even though the attendants always dragged her out and gave her a bath first. She hated the baths. They were icy cold and rough with scrubbing, and she was never permitted to clean herself. If she struggled or cried out they would hit her with the bath brush or pinch hard enough to leave a mark, always somewhere that couldn’t be seen, the side of her breast or the soft part of her belly, with a promise of “more where that came from” unless she behaved.

Her parents didn’t visit so much anymore. Alice couldn’t really remember the last time, but she knew it had been a long time. The days all ran together in her room, no books to read, no things to do. Hatcher said she should exercise so she would be fit when she got out, but somewhere in her heart Alice knew she would never get out. She was a broken thing, and the New City did not like broken things. They liked the new and the whole. Alice hardly recalled when she was new and whole. That girl seemed like someone else she’d known once, long ago and far away.

“Alice?” A voice through the mouse hole.

Many years before, a mouse had gotten into the wall and chewed through the batting between her cell and Hatcher’s. Alice didn’t know what had happened to the mouse. Probably caught in a trap in the kitchens, or went out on the riverside and drowned. But the mouse had led her to Hatcher, a rough voice coming through the wall. She had really thought she’d gone round the bend at first, hearing voices coming from nowhere.

“Hey, you,” the voice had said.

She’d looked around wildly, afraid, and scuttled into a corner on the far side of the window, opposite the door.

“Hey, you. Down here,” the voice said.

Alice had resolutely put her fingers in her ears. Everyone knew hearing voices was a sign of madness, and she’d promised herself she would not be mad no matter what they said, no matter how she felt. After several moments of happy silence she released her fingers and looked around the room in relief.

A great sigh exhaled from the walls. “The mouse hole, you nit.”

Alice stared in alarm at the small opening in the corner opposite. Somehow a talking mouse was worse than voices in her head. If mice were talking, then there really were men with blue-green eyes and long furry ears. And while she didn’t remember his face, she did remember she’d been afraid. She stared at the mouse hole like something horrible might suddenly emerge from it, like the Rabbit might unfold himself from that space and finish whatever he had started.

Another, this one shorter and much more impatient. “You’re not hearing bloody voices and a mouse is not speaking to you. I’m in the room next to yours and I can see you through the hole. You’re not crazy and there’s no magic, so will you please come here and speak with me before I go madder than I already have?”

“If you’re not in my head and you’re not magic, then how do you know what I’m thinking?” Alice asked, her voice suspicious. She was beginning to wonder whether this wasn’t some trick of the doctors, some way to draw her into a trap.

The attendants gave her a powder with her breakfast and dinner, to “keep her calm,” they said. But she knew that those powders still allowed her some freedom to be Alice, to think and dream and try to remember the lost bits of her life. When they took her out of her room for a bath or a visit, she sometimes saw other patients, people standing still with dead eyes and drool on their chins, people who were alive and didn’t know it. Those people were “difficult to deal with.” They got injections instead of powders. Alice didn’t want injections, so she wasn’t going to say or do anything that would alarm the doctors. Doctors who might be trying to trick her with voices in the wall.

“I know what you’re thinking, because that’s what I’d be thinking if I were you,” the voice said. “We’re in the loony bin, aren’t we? Now, come over and have a look through the hole and you’ll see.”

She stood cautiously, still unsure it was not a trick, whether of her mind or the doctors. She crossed under the window and crouched by the mouse hole.

“All I can see are your knees,” the voice complained. “Come all the way down, won’t you?”

Alice lowered to her stomach, keeping her head well away from the opening. She had a vague fear that a needle might flash through the hole and plunge into her eye.

Once her cheek was on the ground she could see through the small, tight opening. On the other side was an iron grey eye and part of a nose. There was a bulge just where the rest of the nose disappeared from view, like it might have been broken once. It didn’t look like any doctor she knew, but Alice wasn’t taking any chances. “Let me see your whole face,” she said.

“Good,” the grey eye said. “You’re thinking. That’s good. Not just a pretty face, then.”

Alice’s hand moved automatically to cover her scar; then she remembered she was lying on that side of her face and he couldn’t really see it anyway. Let him think she was pretty if he wanted. It would be nice to be pretty to someone even with her fair hair all snarled and nothing to wear but a woolen shift. She heard the swish-swish of wool on batting as the grey eye moved away from the hole and became two grey eyes, a long broken nose and a bushy black beard with flecks of white in it.

“All right, then?” the voice asked. “I’m Hatcher.”

And that was how they met. Hatcher was ten years older than Alice, and nobody ever came to see him.

“Why are you here?” she asked one day, long after they were friends, or at least friends who never really saw each other.

“I killed a lot of people with an ,” he said. “That’s how I got my name. Hatcher.”

“What was your name before?” Alice asked. She was surprisingly undisturbed by the knowledge that her new friend was an axe murderer. It seemed unrelated to who he was now, the rough voice and grey eyes through the hole in the wall.

“I don’t remember,” he said. “I don’t remember anything from before, really. They found me with a bloodied axe in my hand and five people dead around me all slashed to pieces. I tried to do the same for the police when they came for me, so I must have killed those people.”

“Why did you do it?”

“Don’t remember,” he said, and his voice change a little, became hard. “It’s like there’s this haze over my eyes, black smoke filling everything up. I remember the weight of the axe in my hand, and the hot blood on my face, in my mouth. I remember the sound of the blade in soft flesh.”

“I remember that too,” Alice said, although she didn’t know why she said that. For a moment it had been true, though. She could hear the sound of a knife piercing skin, that sliding slicing noise, and someone screaming.

“Did you kill a lot of people too?” Hatcher asked.

“I don’t know,” Alice said. “I might have.”

“It’s all right if you did,” Hatcher said. “I would understand.”

“I really don’t know,” Alice said. “I remember before and I remember after, but that fortnight is gone, save for a few flashes.”

“The man with the long ears.”

“Yes,” Alice said. The man who hunted her, faceless, through her nightmares.

“When we get out we’ll find him, and then you’ll know what happened to you,” Hatcher said.

That had been eight years before, and they were both still there, rooms side by side in a hospital that had no intention of ever letting them go.

From ALICE, Ace trade release August 4, 2015. Preorder here:

Amazon

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Indiebound

Powells

or ask your local bookstore to order a copy for you!

 

 

Nov 032014
 

Several people have asked if BLACK SPRING is really the last BLACK WINGS book. Yes, it really is. There were a lot of reasons for this, but a couple of reasons were 1) it felt like a natural stopping point for Maddy’s character, and 2) I don’t want to overstay my welcome. I am always disappointed in series that seem to go on and on with no direction. I’ve always had a general plan for Maddy’s story and while I could have written two or three more books it seemed like this was the place to wrap things up. Plus, I have tons and tons of ideas for other books and I’d like to try my hand at writing something different.


I want to thank everyone who has come along on Maddy’s journey with me. I hope that you will try ALICE, the first in a 2-part book series, which will be released next August. It is very different from the BLACK WINGS series but I am extremely excited about this new direction for my writing.

Oct 062014
 

The BLACK SPRING blog tour begins today! Would you like to win one of two signed sets of all of the BLACK WINGS novels? How about a signed set plus a $25 B&N gift certificate, or a copy of the book plus a tote bag from my publisher? Just check out all the stops on the tour each day from October 6th – October 31st. Enter the contest at each site and you’ll be entered to win in the tour-wide giveaway. Click on the links below to go to an individual stop. And remember, BLACK SPRING is released October 28th!

10/6/2014   I Smell Sheep

10/7/2014   The Reading Addict

10/8/2014  a GREAT read

10/9/ 2014  Urban Fantasy Investigations

10/10/2014 The Qwillery

10/11/2014 Gizmo’s Reviews

10/13/2014  Rex Robot Reviews

10/15/2014  Literal Addiction

10/16/2014  Mad Hatter Reads

10/17/2014 The Blogger Girls

10/18/2014 The Enchanted Alley

10/20/2014 That’s What I’m Talking About

10/22/2014 A Book Obsession

10/23/2014  My Bookish Ways

10/27/2014 Team Tynga’s Reviews

10/28/2014 In the Pages of a Good Book

10/29/2014 Theresa M. Cole

10/31/2014 drey’s library

Sep 242014
 

It’s 33 days until the release of BLACK SPRING! Would you like to read it a little earlier than all your friends? I’m giving away four copies and all you have to do is this – send me your favorite Beezle quote and which book you’re quoting from to:

an email to christina (at) christinahenry.net

or tweet me at @C_Henry_Author

or post a comment to the BLACK SPRING giveaway post at www.facebook.com/authorChristinaHenry

The best 30 quotes will be used in the 30 days leading up to release day. Everyone who emails  a quote to me will be automatically entered to win an early reading copy. Contest runs until Saturday, September 27th.

Sep 172014
 

It’s called ALICE, and it will be released in August of 2015. Here’s a little teaser I wrote up:

Some time in the past, or maybe some time in the future…

The City is a warren of crumbling buildings, desperate people, thieves, murderers, con men and whores. The wealthy live in a gated ring around the teeming darkness of the City, keeping the undesirables contained. Sometimes people go in, but no one ever comes out.

An asylum stands deep in the heart of the City. A girl named Alice is held there. She was found wandering the streets in a torn and bloodied dress, repeating two words over and over, “The Rabbit. The Rabbit. The Rabbit.” She had a friend named Dor, and now Dor is gone. There is a hole in Alice’s memory where her life used to be, and all she can see is the looming face of the Rabbit, promising death and despair.

In the cell next to hers is a man called Hatcher, and he is one of the few who knows what is in the basement of the asylum. He calls it the Jabberwocky, and even the lunatics think he is mad.

But then one day there is a fire at the asylum, and Alice and Hatcher find a way out. Alice must find the lost bits of herself, and to do that she must find a creature no one believes exists – the Rabbit.

And the Jabberwocky now stalks the streets of the City…

Sep 042014
 

Chapter 1

I woke to the sound of dogs barking. My eyes drifted open halfway, just enough to register the sun streaming through the open blinds. Nathaniel’s arm was thrown around my waist, his body snuggled into my back. The child inside my belly shifted under his hand. The scent of bacon cooking drifted from the kitchen.
My three dogs, Lock, Stock and Barrel, nosed inside the bedroom door, their nails clicking across the hardwood floor. They came around to my side of the bed, their doggy faces set in mute appeal, tongues lolling.
It seemed like a pretty typical domestic scene, except that there is nothing typical about my life. The dogs weren’t dogs at all, but Retrievers—powerful magical creatures who’d given me their allegiance when I’d freed them from slavery to the Agency.
The man in bed with me wasn’t a man, but the son of an angel and a . . . Well, I wasn’t sure exactly what Puck was, but he was definitely something old and powerful. Besides his lack of humanity, Nathaniel also wasn’t the father of my child. He wasn’t even my lover, or my boyfriend. I didn’t know how to define our relationship status as any other way except “complicated.”
The person cooking the bacon in the kitchen was my many-greats-uncle Daharan, brother of Lucifer, dragon shapeshifter, creature of fire and something older than the Earth itself.
As for me, I was the daughter of a fallen angel and an Agent of Death. Lucifer was my grandfather. My baby had the blood of a half nephilim inside his veins, a legacy from his dead father. I had more enemies than I could count. I’d spent the last several months trying to stay alive while those enemies tried to kill me and my very ancient family members plotted around me.
We were definitely not going to win any awards for normality in this family.
The dogs needed walking, but everyone pretended not to notice because no one could control them except me.
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” I grumbled, sliding out from beneath Nathaniel’s arm.
This was harder than it sounded. I was only three months pregnant, but it appeared that I was twice that. I’d never fully appreciated the ease and elasticity with which I’d rolled out of bed before I took on the aspect of a hippo.
“Do you want me to come with you?” Nathaniel murmured.
“No one is going to mess with me while I’m walking these three,” I said. “Besides, it’s been a quiet couple of weeks.”
And it had been, I reflected as I got dressed. Since I’d killed Titania, the faerie queen. Since Nathaniel’s half brother—and heir to the court of Titania and Oberon— Bendith had been killed by his biological father, Puck. Since Puck had tricked me into freeing him from his bondage to Titania.
Since I’d had an adventure in another space and time, and discovered the darker places in my heart, the black menace at the core of my magic. I’d worked hard to force that dark- ness to recede, to let my natural personality reassert itself. But it seemed that since I’d tapped into that power, it floated closer to the surface, shadows seeping into my edges.
Like so many things that I’d discovered since becoming aware of my ancestry, my new magical abilities were impossible to undo. And my darling grandfather Lucifer definitely preferred it that way. All the better to tempt you with, my dear.
Lucifer cherished a long-held hope that I would give up my life and become heir to his kingdom. I’d rather eat nails for breakfast than manacle myself to the first of the fallen. Besides, Lucifer’s crazy lover Evangeline was pregnant with his child, and I knew very well that she was angling to put that kid on the throne. If I expressed even the smallest iota of interest in taking Lucifer’s offer, she would set a thousand assassins upon me, regardless of what Lucifer might want.
No, embroiling myself further in Lucifer’s machinations was definitely not at the top of my to-do list. I pulled on a pair of jeans I couldn’t button. The taut roundness of my lower belly protruded over the fly. I pushed a rubber band through the buttonhole, looped it and wrapped the other end around the button to keep the pants from sliding down. A long, baggy Cubs sweatshirt completed this uber-stylish look. I shoved my slippers on and padded out of the room.
In the kitchen, my uncle Daharan was making pancakes and bacon in large quantities and placing them on covered platters I didn’t even know I owned. He’s not your garden-variety uncle. He’s an ancient being, one of Lucifer’s three brothers, and he spends at least part of his time in dragon form. For the moment he was living in the apartment downstairs.
Locks didn’t keep him out, and he came and went freely between my place and his. Somehow I couldn’t be irritated about this. There was some quality about Daharan that made me trust him, trust that he would do me no harm. Beezle wasn’t so sure, as he tended not to trust anyone so closely related to Lucifer, but as I entered the kitchen I noticed his mistrust of Daharan did not extend to disdain of his cooking. Beezle was perched on the counter next to the platters filching as much bacon as he could while Daharan’s back was turned.
The dogs trotted ahead of me, down the hall, and stopped before the front door while I paused in the kitchen.
“That’s a whole lot of breakfast for three people and a gargoyle,” I remarked.
“You’re eating for two,” Beezle said before Daharan could answer.
“And you’re eating for five,” I said.
Daharan ignored the byplay. “We will be having guests this morning.”
“What guests?” I asked warily.
The last thing I wanted was for one of Daharan’s brothers to show up. Alerian terrified me. Lucifer infuriated me.
And Puck . . . Well, when I thought of the way Puck had manipulated me into destroying one of the oldest creatures in the universe for his own personal gain, those shadows on my heart threatened to overtake me. I truly thought I could beat Puck bloody with a crowbar and it wouldn’t bother me in the least. Of course, when I had thoughts like that I knew that the darkness was spreading inside me like a cancer. I wasn’t sure if there was anything I could do to stop it.
“You will see when they arrive,” Daharan said.
I’d almost forgotten I’d asked a question, so caught up was I in thoughts of vengeance on Puck.
“Did you invite someone?” I asked.
“No,” Daharan said mildly, but with a finality that let me know he wasn’t going to tell me anything more.
Lucifer and all of his brothers could see aspects of the future. Daharan was able to see with the most clarity. So someone was coming. Someone whose arrival Daharan had foreseen, but he didn’t want to share with me for some reason.
I shrugged and went to the waiting dogs, who panted in anticipation. As soon as I opened the front door they crowded out in a rush, jumping all over one another in their eagerness to leave. They thundered down the steps ahead of me, whining when they reached the closed door at the bottom of the stairs.
I trudged slowly after them. I might be imbued with some of the strongest magic in the universe, but I was an ungainly waddler just like every other pregnant woman there ever was. I finally made it to the bottom and opened the door.
The dogs created another bottleneck in the foyer, where a final door, this one clear glass, made the first threshold between me and mine and anything nasty that might come knocking. I managed to herd the dogs to one side so I could get the door open. They ran down the front porch steps and out to the sidewalk, terrifying a nanny walking a couple of babies in a double stroller.
The former Retrievers looked like oversized black mastiffs, and while I was pretty sure they wouldn’t attack an innocent human being, they definitely looked intimidating. She gave me a look like she wanted to chastise me for defying Chicago’s leash law, but then gave the dogs a second glance and obviously thought better of it. She hurried down the street with the kids, eager to get away.
I’d tried to keep Lock, Stock and Barrel on leashes. But they would weave in and out and get tangled up, and finally I threw up my hands. They would do what I said—mostly— so why bother with leashes?
The dogs ran in three different directions to do their business. They each had a preferred spot staked out. I monitored them from the sidewalk in front of my house, wondering idly why supernatural creatures made of darkness and bearing the power to destroy souls needed to crap on the neighbor’s lawn in the first place. Was it because I expected dogs to do such things? The Retrievers had become more doglike as I considered them so. They were connected to me in a way I didn’t fully understand. I could feel their presence always in the back of my mind. It wasn’t as disturbing as it should have been. It was comforting. It kept me secure in the knowledge that they would come to my defense if I needed it. More important, they would come to the defense of my baby.
I placed my hand over my protruding belly, secure in the knowledge that my son was safe inside me. I hardly allowed myself to consider what might happen after he was born. At night I was plagued by dreams of him being rent from my arms, stolen and kept by one of my enemies—or worse.
My own family might try to take him from me. Lucifer had made no secret of his interest in the child. Did I have the strength—and the allies—to keep Lucifer from my son? Maybe. But I didn’t want to be forced to find out. I was thinking all these things, lost in my own worries, when the growling of the Retrievers brought me back to the present. 3N
They crowded around me in a protective circle, making horrible noises low in their throats, just waiting for me to give the signal so they could leap, rip, tear.

A figure approached cautiously, the object of the Retrievers’ suspicion. The person was dressed like a college student, a slouchy gray T-shirt over loose-fitting jeans and beat-up sneakers. But the baggy clothes could not disguise the obvious strength in his body, or hide the muscles flexing in his arms. Nor did the grimy Cubs cap completely cover the gold- blond of his hair or shade the brilliance of his green eyes.
He’d veiled his wings, and his eyes were unsure as he stopped a few feet from me. The Retrievers growled more intensely, but I put my hand on Stock’s neck, and they quieted instantly. They were obviously still on their guard, though.
The man before me stood silently, waiting to see what I would do.
“Samiel,” I said.
Everything was knotted up inside me. I wasn’t sure how to feel. There was happiness, and pain, and lots and lots of anger. Samiel was my brother-in-law, and seeing him again reminded me of happier days, when Gabriel was alive. But I was also reminded that he had left me, left me when I was in need of help, left me after I’d taken him in and sheltered him. He’d left even though I’d risked my life to save him from the court of the Grigori. He’d left knowing I carried his brother’s child, blood of his blood, and knowing that child needed protection.
As I thought these things the anger and the darkness rose up inside me, and he took a step back, like he could feel the pulse of dark magic. The Retrievers crouched, ready to strike.
“What do you want?” I asked, and my voice did not sound like my own. The effect was lost entirely on Samiel, who was deaf. But he could see my face, and read my lips, and know he was not welcome.
His hands moved tentatively, signing out the words,
Maddy, I’m sorry.
He meant it. I could see it in his eyes, in the pleading lines of his face. He was sorry.
Part of me wanted to unbend immediately, to take the apology that was freely given, to return back to the way things were before.
The other part of me knew that we could never return to who we were before, and that part wanted to hold on to the anger and the hurt, to rage in pain and make Samiel suffer, make him hurt as I had when I thought everyone had abandoned me.
An image of Samiel bent and broken, blood seeping from many wounds, flashed across my brain.
That shocked me out of my anger, made me realize it was wrong, all out of proportion to his crime.
The Retrievers would take him down if I gave the words. They were attuned to my feelings, had sensed the building inferno inside me. I willed that anger away, fought to remember who I was.
“Stand down,” I told Lock, Stock and Barrel. They immediately sat back on their haunches and let their tongues loll out. I sensed their watchfulness despite their easy posture. “He’s a friend.”
Some of the tension seeped out of Samiel’s body, but not all of it. Am I? he signed.
“Are you?” I asked, raising my eyebrow. “Or have you come to try and eliminate me before I give birth to this baby, who just might be a monster unleashed on the world?”
Samiel looked shocked. I could never hurt Gabriel’s child. And why would you think your own baby is a monster?
It was a thought I allowed myself only rarely and briefly. Mostly because I was sure I would still love and protect him, no matter what he was.
“It’s always been a possibility, hasn’t it?” I said. “Gabriel was Ramuell’s son, and Ramuell was most definitely a monster.”
But Gabriel wasn’t. And neither are you.
“Are you sure about that?” I asked, thinking of all the things I had done, the dark compulsion that was becoming more difficult to control.
Samiel shook his head. I know who you are, in your heart. I nearly killed you twice. I cut off two of your fingers. And yet you saw how my mother had twisted my love for her. You forgave me. You made me a part of your family.
“And you left me,” I said. There was no anger now, only hurt and sadness. “I trusted you. And you left.”
I was confused, he signed. It’s not an excuse. I just wasn’t sure what would happen after everyone in the world saw you on television destroying those vampires. And Chloe . . .
Here he stopped signing and frowned.
“I know,” I said. “You wanted to protect her from the hordes you thought would be breaking down my door at any moment. She’s your girl. I get it.”
No, he signed, then backtracked. I mean, yes, I did want to protect her. But she’s not my girl. At least, not anymore.
“She kicked you out and now you’re here looking for a roof over your head?” I asked, getting annoyed again.
No, Samiel signed, shaking his head. It’s not like that. We broke up because I wanted to come here, to make amends.
“Let me guess,” I said. “Chloe didn’t agree.”
You could say that, Samiel said, grinning.
I could imagine how that argument went. Chloe has an extremely strong personality. And once she’s decided something, no force in the universe could make her change her mind.
“What’s the heaviest thing she threw at your head?” I asked.
A cast-iron frying pan.
“Seriously? A little cliché, that,” I said.
She had just finished cooking breakfast, he signed. I thought it would be a safe time to raise the subject since her stomach was full.
“According to Beezle her stomach is never full,” I said.
Beezle should talk.
And just like that, it was all right. I didn’t want to be angry at Samiel. I had enough legitimate enemies without spurning an apologetic friend just to soothe my pride. I stepped forward and he put his arms around me. I felt safe and warm there. He leaned back, his hands on my shoulders for a moment, and looked me up and down, shaking his head.
“Don’t say anything about my weight,” I warned. “Don’t say it looks like I swallowed a basketball, or that it looks like I’m about to pop, or ask me if I’m having twins.”
Samiel shook his head. I was just going to say you look tired.
“And don’t say that either,” I said. “When speaking to a pregnant woman, only compliments should flow from your lips. ‘You look great’ is an excellent fallback.”
Even if it’s not true?
“Especially if it’s not true. I already feel like a whale on two legs. I don’t need anybody to tell me I look like one.” I sighed. “I have to clean up after the dogs. Why don’t you stay here for a minute and get to know them?”
Samiel crouched warily before the three Retrievers, holding his hand out for them to sniff. I went away to collect the dogs’ leavings, confident that Samiel would make friends with them. Everyone loved Samiel.
And if for some reason the dogs didn’t like him . . . well, at least Samiel could fly if necessary.
I went down the gangway between my house and the next to drop the plastic bag in the garbage can in the alley just outside the back fence. When I reentered the backyard I noticed someone standing there, his back to me.
“No wonder Daharan made so many pancakes,” I said. “Apparently it’s my day for a family reunion.”
Jude turned around, his shaggy red beard and piercing blue eyes as familiar and welcome as Samiel had been. He looked like he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
“They told me you were dead,” he said hoarsely, taking a step toward me.
“I could say that thing about death and rumors and exaggeration, but you probably wouldn’t get it,” I said. Jude was very old, and very serious, and very literal-minded.
“I thought you were dead,” he repeated.
I realized I’d been a little thoughtless. Jude remembered the “B” in B.C. He also had lived through the “A” in A.D., long ago, when he was called Judas Iscariot and his name became infamous. He’d lost someone he’d pledged his life to, and for more than two thousand years he hadn’t made a pledge like that again. Until me. And he’d thought I died.
“Jude, I . . .” I began.
Several things happened at once. The back door flew open. Beezle, Nathaniel and Daharan streamed out onto the porch, all looking frantic.
The Retrievers came howling down the side of the house, chased by Samiel, who also appeared panicked.
Jude spun to face the new arrivals just as Beezle cried out, “Maddy, get away from him!”
And then a huge red-and-gray wolf leapt over the neighbor’s fence, into my yard, and tackled Jude to the ground.
Jude transformed into a matching red-and-gray wolf. The two canids tangled with each other, biting and clawing while I—and everyone else—stood frozen in surprise. Beezle flew to my shoulder.
“That’s not Jude,” he said.
“I figured that out,” I said. “But is the other one Jude?” “Yes,” Beezle said, squinting at the two snarling wolves.
I knew he was looking through all the layers of reality to see the creatures’ true essence. “It’s a good thing he showed up when he did. You looked like you were about to hug the fake Jude.”
“I was,” I admitted. “So who’s the fake?”
Beezle’s answer never came, for one of the wolves suddenly yelped and then bounded over the side fence into my neighbors’ yard. The other wolf growled and made to follow it.
“Wait!” I called, then glanced at Beezle. “I’m assuming that’s the real Jude there?”
Beezle nodded.
“Jude, wait,” I said.
He turned toward me, his muzzle streaked with blood, and growled low in his throat. He didn’t want to let his quarry escape. But I hadn’t seen Jude since before I destroyed the vampires infesting Chicago. He’d gone away to attend to some pack business, and he’d never come back. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized just how much I’d missed him.
“Jude, stay,” I said, and fell to my knees. Beezle fluttered away.
Jude took a half step toward me, then looked back in the direction of the imposter.
“We’ll find him,” I promised. Tears sprung to my eyes.
I wiped them away with the heel of my hand. “Only— don’t leave. I can’t bear any more leavings.”
Everyone in the yard was silent, watching. The last time I’d fallen to my knees in this place I’d covered Gabriel’s bleeding body in the snow. Jude had helped me stand again, pulled me away from the snow and the cold and blood. It was spring now, and Gabriel was gone forever, but Gabriel’s heart lived on inside me, in the beating heart of his child.
The tears fell fast and thick now, and I could hardly see in front of me. Jude’s cold nose pressed against my cheek, and then I buried my face in the thick ruff of fur at his neck. He whined softly in his throat.
The spell was broken by Nathaniel, who abruptly took to the air, flying into the thick leaves of the catalpa tree that grew in the corner of my yard.
I heard someone familiar say, “Ow! You can’t do that!”
I came to my feet and spun toward the tree. Nathaniel emerged grim-faced, holding Jack Dabrowski by the collar of his jacket like a truculent child. He landed in front of me with Jack wriggling under his grasp like a worm on a hook. Nathaniel held a video camera in his free hand.
Daharan moved up to my left side, Samiel to my right. Beezle returned to his perch on my shoulder. The dogs crowded around our ankles, treating Jude like he was part of their pack.
Nathaniel looked at me, then at the camera.
“Break it,” I said.
“Naw, you can’t—Oh, man!” Jack said as Nathaniel looked at the camera and it burst into flame. A second later nothing was left but ash, which Nathaniel dumped in the grass.
“I told you to leave me alone,” I said to Jack.
“And I told you that I wasn’t going to stop,” Jack said, his feet dangling above the ground. “Hey, can you get your goon to let me down? It’s kind of hard to breathe when I’m in this position.”
“It’s kind of hard to breathe when angry supernatural creatures decide to punish you for not leaving well enough alone,” I said, but I nodded at Nathaniel to release Jack.
He did so, but made sure to stand close by and loom over the blogger. Nathaniel looms well. His height—well over six feet—helps with that.
Jude gave Jack a pointed look and growled. Jack gave Jude a nervous glance and backed away a few inches, which naturally caused him to bump into Nathaniel. He glanced up at Nathaniel’s cold, hard face, muttered, “Sorry,” and tried to find a position far from both Jude and Nathaniel.
Since we were all crowded around him in our best menacing fashion, this necessitated a lot of uncertain shuffling on his part. I watched him with a mixture of amusement and frustration. He was so far out of his depth, but he refused to be scared away.
Jack had waited his whole life to discover that all the things he believed in were real. He’d blogged about supernatural happenings in Chicago before anyone had realized there actually were supernatural happenings. And now that normal folk had become aware of things like vampires and angels, Jack Dabrowski had become something of a high priest among the faithful and the true believers.
Unfortunately Jack’s hobby conflicted with my own personal preference to stay under the radar as much as possible. He’d decided that I needed to be an intermediary between the magical world and the regular world. I didn’t want this job for numerous reasons, starting with I had enough trouble and ending with I am not a people person. 3N
“You need to leave me alone, Jack,” I said. “Every time you meet me I break something that belongs to you. So far it’s only been your electronics.”
I let the threat hang in the air, hoping it would have some kind of effect.
Jack made a dismissive gesture. “You can’t fool me. I’ve been asking around about you since the last time you threatened me. I know you don’t hurt innocents.”
“Not on purpose, anyway,” Beezle mumbled. “But if you’re in her path when the avalanche starts rolling, watch out.”
I ignored Beezle. My heart had gone cold at Jack’s words. “Who have you been asking about me?”
He shrugged. “Around online. You know, you have quite the reputation. Did you really kill the High Queen of Faerie?”
“Gods above and below, you’re not even supposed to know that there is a High Queen of Faerie, much less that I killed her,” I said. “I don’t know how you found out about that, but you need to stop talking about me, especially online. You don’t know who you’re conversing with.”
My mind seethed with possibilities, all of them bad news for Jack. Leaving aside all the creatures that hated my guts and could potentially use Jack to get to me, he might draw the attention of Lucifer. And if Lucifer decided that Jack’s pursuit of me was attracting too much notice to his court, he would squash Jack like a bug.
“Like I don’t know how to trace people online?” Jack scoffed. “Believe me, I’ve verified the identity of every source I’ve ever had.”
“Are you crazy?” I shouted. “Do you want to be killed? Do you know how insanely dangerous it is to track down powerful beings who use the Internet for its anonymity?”
“Didn’t I say he was too stupid to live the first time we met?” Beezle said.
This was even worse than I thought. He was actively seeking out dangerous people in the name of research. Sooner or later he would stumble into a situation that would get him killed. And I would be responsible, because I couldn’t stop him.
Nathaniel looked at me. He understood a fair bit of what passed inside my mind without my saying a word. Ever since I’d released his magical legacy from Puck, there had been a powerful connection between us.
“You’ve warned him,” Nathaniel said. “His fate is in his own hands.”
Daharan nodded. “You cannot save everyone, Madeline.”
Their solemnity penetrated Jack’s bravado in a way my anger had not.
“Nothing’s going to happen to me,” he said defiantly.
“Oh, yes, it is,” I said softly. I could almost see it happening—his capture, his torture, his death. A cloak of darkness seemed to settle over him, the resolute hand of the Reaper on his shoulder. We all felt it. We were attending Jack Dabrowski’s funeral.
“I’m not going to die!” he said angrily, desperately, backing away from me.
Nathaniel moved aside so Jack could free himself from our circle, from the relentless certainty of his death.
He held his hands palms up in front of him, to plead, to defend. “I’m not going to die.”
Jack backed into the fence, fumbled with the gate, stepped into the alley.
“I won’t,” he said before the gate slammed shut and we heard his footsteps running away.
“You will,” I said softly behind him. “Everything dies.”

BLACK SPRING will be released on October 28, 2014.

Nov 072013
 

Are you ready for KICKING IT? Featuring stories by SHANNON K. BUTCHER * RACHEL CAINE * LUCIENNE DIVER * CHRIS MARIE GREEN * CHRISTINA HENRY * FAITH HUNTER * CHLOE NEILL * KALAYNA PRICE * ROB THURMAN

The Maddy and Beezle story, RED ISN’T REALLY MY COLOR, takes place between the events of BLACK NIGHT and BLACK HOWL. Maddy gets an assignment from her least favorite relative (guess who?) and has to track down a pair of mythical red shoes said to force the wearer to dance until they die. Will Maddy succeed? And given that the assignment is from Lucifer and involves a magical object that tortures people, does she even want to?